Publishe Date: 11:48 AM - 12/14/2014 | Print

Division of Labor with Washington or Sign of Change in US Regional Strategy?

Politics - Ahmad Kazemzadeh
Senior Middle East Analyst

The 10th Manama Dialogue, also known as the IISS Regional Security Summit 2014, was held in the Bahraini capital city of Manama on December 5-7, 2014, attended by high-ranking security and military officials from certain Western and Arab countries of the region. On the sidelines of the event, a new military deal was signed between the UK and the government of Bahrain, which will allow Britain to establish its first military base in the Persian Gulf kingdom. Although the signing ceremony was held in presence of the British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, the agreement was actually signed by the British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, and Bahraini Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. This proves that the agreement not only pursues military goals, but also political objectives as well. Now, the question is what are those goals, which are pursued by the parties that have signed the agreement? Given the fact that the current Bahraini government is actually considered a stooge of Saudi Arabia, can the scope of that agreement be considered to be limited to Bahrain and Britain?

Goals Britain pursues by signing military deal with Bahrain

The goals pursued by the British government though signing of the military deal with Bahrain can be divided into those that have been declared and those goals that have not been declared yet.

The declared goals are the goals that have been explicitly announced by Britain’s military and political officials. The British Defense Ministry issued a statement following the signing ceremony to announce the obvious goals of the deal. The statement noted that according to the agreement, the british Navy will be able to build its first base in Mina Salman port of Bahrain where British warships will be deployed in order to enable London to dispatch more and bigger ships in future to this strategic region in a bid to guarantee the stability and security of the Persian Gulf. Michael Fallon, Britain’s defense secretary also explained about the goals of the new agreement, noting that it would pave the way for the long-term presence of the British Navy in the Persian Gulf region.

The British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, however, tried to hide military goals of his country behind a diplomatic façade by implying that the agreement has been, in fact, a favor done by his government to the government of Bahrain and other Arab countries in the Persian Gulf for which they should be indebted to the UK. Therefore, without saying anything clear about his government’s need to the agreement, he said, “Your security is our security; your prosperity is our prosperity; your stability is our stability. So a strategic priority for the [Persian] gulf and for the wider region is to build partnerships; partnerships for security, partnerships for prosperity, partnerships for stability. I was delighted last night to sign a memorandum of understanding with His Excellency Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa in the presence of his royal highness the crown prince. That arrangement will put the longstanding presence of the Royal Navy in Bahrain on a permanent footing.”

On the other hand, non-declared goals pursued by the UK are also noteworthy in that during recent years some of the European rivals of the UK, including France, have been making extensive efforts to consolidate their military presence in the region. They have been doing this either through establishing naval bases in the United Arab Emirates or by signing huge military deals with other regional countries, including Saudi Arabia. By doing this, they have been absorbing the lion’s share of opportunities that have been created in the region as a result of the rearrangement of the United States’ military strategy in the region and the change in Washington’s priorities from the Persian Gulf region to East Asia. Germany, of course, has been also making moves in order to boost its relations and cooperation with the Arab states of the region, though Berlin’s efforts have not been as extensive as those of France. From this viewpoint, it seems that one of the goals that Britain is probably pursing through opening a military base in Bahrain is not to lag behind other European rivals, especially France.

Another noteworthy point that should be taken into consideration here is that up to the present time, British warships in the Persian Gulf used the facilities of the United States’ Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Under such circumstances, the move taken by Britain to have its own independent military base can be a sign that the UK is bent on reducing its military dependence on the United States. Of course, seen from another angle, it may be also the result of some kind of division of labor between the two countries at a time that the United States is rearranging and changing its military strategy in the region. Another possibility is that establishment of a British military base in Bahrain may be a sign that the United States is willing to move its Fifth Fleet from Bahrain in future.

Goals Bahrain pursues by signing military deal with UK

The main goal pursued by the government of Bahrain through signing this agreement and giving permission for permanent military presence of the UK on its soil is to make sure that it can rely on the British military in order to protect its vulnerable rule. From this viewpoint, instead of trying to boost its domestic legitimacy by showing maximum respect for the rights of its own people, the government of Bahrain is trying to make the country more dependent on Western states.

This is why national and democratic groups in Bahrain have expressed great concern about military and permanent presence of a foreign power in Bahrain which will turn the country into a base for that foreign power’s military operations in future. This situation will make Bahrain the center of regional tensions in the years to come. They have also noted that the deal is reminiscent of the past presence of the British forces in this region and the colonial role they played in the Middle East.

On the whole, as expressed by the opponents of this deal and also according to many experts, the signing of this agreement at a time that the majority of the people in Bahrain have risen up against the rule of a totalitarian minority is a great point for the government of this country, which will make it more resolute in the pursuit of its policy of suppression against the majority of its own people.

On the other hand, if we assume that Saudi Arabia has absolute control over Bahrain and the minority and totalitarian government that is ruling the country is a stooge of Saudi Arabia, then the goals behind signing of the new military deal between Bahrain and the UK should be also assessed from the viewpoint of Saudi Arabia as well. From this viewpoint, it seems that Saudi Arabia has been making new moves to bolster its relations as well as military cooperation with the European countries. Two major reasons for this decision on the part of Saudi Arabia include a change in the United States military strategy in the Middle East, on the one hand, and rising regional clout of Iran (both due to the progress made in nuclear talks with the P5+1 group and as a result of victories gained in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain), on the other hand. When seen from this angle, it would seem that the new military deal has been actually signed between the UK and Saudi Arabia and most probably, a large part of the cost for the construction of Britain’s military and naval base in Mina Salman port, which has been estimated at about USD 23 billion, will be paid by Saudi Arabia.

Of course, it seems that new developments in the region have been also instrumental in catalyzing the signing of the new military agreement between Bahrain and the UK. The most important of those developments are the establishment of the Western-led coalition against the ISIS terrorist group, the fact that negotiations over Iran's nuclear program have reached a fateful phase, as well as conditions surrounding other regional crises, such as the ongoing crisis in Syria. However, apart from these developments, there are sure to be special goals pursued by both sides to this deal because every party to the deal is actually pursing its own specific goals which are mostly different from each other.

At any rate, there is no doubt that signing of the new agreement will pave the way for the British military to return to the region after about 43 years. On the other hand, the decision for permanent presence in the region can be considered a turning point in the regional strategy of the UK. On the whole, although this deal can meet the special goals of the minority and totalitarian government of Bahrain and although it is in line with the strategic goals of the UK, it is at the same time at odds with the interests and sustainable security of regional countries. This is true as sustainable security of the region should be provided by regional countries and, therefore, the new deal cannot be of any long-term assistance to bolstering regional security and stability. Let’s not forget that the most important approach taken by the British government in its past policy toward this region was “to divide and rule.”

Key Words: UK, Military Deal, Bahrain, IISS Regional Security Summit, Manama Dialogue, US Regional Strategy, Philip Hammond, Michael Fallon, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, British Navy, United States’ Fifth Fleet, Middle East,

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